When I was finishing my match recap on Saturday, the title was “Atlanta United without Thiago Almada defeat Toronto FC 2-1.” I was ready to hit the big, blue “publish now” button as the game came to a close, but the Toronto version of Tyler Pilgrim must’ve been over there saying “I hope you have to change your title, eh?” because the Reds managed to steal a point back at the death (and forced me to change the darn title).
Today we look at what happened in the build-up to some key plays to better understand why this draw, although a good result on the road without a couple of key players, feels more like a loss after the fact.
Toronto FC Goal - Richie Laryea 42’
Federico Bernardeschi is holding Caleb Wiley off of the ball and, having few passing options, decides to just lay it off to Richie Laryea (blue arrow). Notice that a pass toward the middle to Alonso Coello Camarero would be unwise as Giorgos Giakoumakis would be able to cover him very quickly (red arrow) and likely force a dangerous turnover.
Laryea has a couple of seconds to evaluate his options as Wiley changes his focus from Bernardeschi to him. In this position, his easiest option is a pass back to Lukas MacNaughton (dotted blue arrow) which would allow the ball to cycle along the backline to attempt an attack on the other flank.
Wiley at this moment is positioning his body in a manner that prevents Laryea from getting the ball to the center of midfield such as Camarero. Wiley has Laryea pinned to the touchline, but he’s starting to overcommit to sandwiching Laryea between himself and the touchline. This causes him to slowly open just enough room along the touchline for Laryea to squeeze through. The experienced 28-year-old Canadian international sees and exploits this by running along the touchline (solid blue arrow).
But what can Laryea do once he gets past Wiley? Not a whole lot at the moment. Etienne is covering Bernardeschi (yellow arrow), the only viable passing option and Amar Sejdic (circled in purple) is up ahead to catch Laryea. That’s about to change, though...
... as Brandon Servania comes in front of Sejdic while he isn’t looking (solid yellow arrow), so Laryea sees him open and passes to him before Derrick Etienne Jr. can cut him off (solid blue arrow). Matheus Rossetto (circled in purple), in a more central position, sees what’s developing and starts slowly tracking back.
Notice that Etienne used to mark Bernardeschi. By stepping up to try and dispossess Laryea, he has left Bernardeschi without a marker (dotted red line) meaning that he is COMPLETELY OPEN.
In an organized pressing system there are relays. If Defender A is marking Attacker A but decides that he’s going to step up to pressure Attacker B, he needs to pass the baton to Defender B who must pick up the mark on Attacker A.
Looking at this scenario, when Etienne moves away from Bernardeschi to press Laryea, someone nearby needs to be picking up the mark on him. Very nearby is Santiago Sosa (circled in yellow) who is occupying what J. Sam Jones calls “negative space.” In other words, he’s not really marking anyone or being very productive in the space he’s currently occupying. The logic here says that as Etienne leaves Bernardeschi, Sosa should be making a beeline for the Italian...
... Sosa doesn’t do that. He instead decides to move toward Servania (solid yellow arrow) who already had Sejdic preventing him from advancing.
Seeing Bernardeschi open, Servania quickly passes to him (blue arrow). In the meantime, Laryea is getting ready to make an underlapping run with Wiley hot in pursuit (green arrow).
Sosa tries to close down Bernardeschi but is too late. The Italian plays a good pass forward (blue arrow) to Laryea who’s turned on the turbo and is speeding toward Atlanta’s goal (yellow arrow). Sejdic now joins the mad dash to stop Laryea (red arrow), but he’s nowhere near fast enough to catch up to him.
Laryea in this position is all but clear of Atlanta’s midfielders. None of them are going to be able to stop him, so that leaves the two center backs: Miles Robinson and Juanjo Purata to get in Laryea’s way. Just one problem: between Purata and Robinson is Jordan Perruzza (circled in purple) who’s threatening to make a penetrating run in behind Atlanta’s backline to receive a deadly through ball and score.
So one of them needs to keep running with Perruzza while the other needs to break off and deal with Laryea.
The most natural way for them to do this is for Purata, as the left-sided center back, to pump the brakes and deal with Laryea since he’s attacking from the left side. This leaves Robinson to chase Perruzza down.
But the two center backs can’t decide what to do, so they BOTH decide to stay with Perruzza (red arrows) and afford Laryea way too much space to run into (blue arrow).
After seeing that his center back partner was insisting on guarding the runner, Robinson (underlined in red) realizes that he has to deal with the danger NOW. Rossetto makes a last-ditch effort to reach Laryea (purple arrow), but the Canadian fullback is too fast...
... and Robinson isn’t in a prime position to deal with Laryea anymore. Laryea sees his chance and takes a shot...
... which sails past Westberg to tie the game.
- The team was in all sorts of defensive disarray. Every defender involved in this play had a moment where they made a mistake: Wiley overcommitting, Sejdic letting Servania blow past him, Sosa not pressing Bernardeschi, Purata and Robinson not making up their minds fast enough, etc. When one player makes an individual mistake, it’s usually not a big deal because their teammates can bail them out. But when five or six players each make a mistake in the same play, this kind of thing happens.
- Franco Ibarra was missed. Santiago Sosa isn’t a bad midfielder. His passing is pretty good and he’s shown some moments of brilliance in the past, but his defensive performances as of late have left much to be desired. It seems like he’s often behind the play and not in tune with the rest of the team when it comes to the systematic press. Before the game, I tweeted about Atlanta United’s midfield looking very thin without Thiago Almada and Ibarra. After seeing this match and seeing Toronto passing through that midfield often, I feel that was a correct assessment.
Toronto FC Goal - Brandon Servania 90+4’
MacNaughton passes the ball to Sigurd Rosted on the halfway line under little pressure (blue arrow). Miguel Berry and Machop Chol are trying to run over and close them down, but are too far away to get to them in time.
Lorenzo Insigne, who is all alone, drops back to receive the ball from Rosted (yellow arrow). Brooks Lennon, realizing the space the Italian was being afforded, rushes over to try and close him down (solid red arrow).
Note that during all of this, Atlanta has shifted to a back five with Robinson as the right center back, Purata as the middle center back and Luis Abram as the left center back. Atlanta is just trying to defend and survive the last few seconds of the game and all of its players are in the defensive third.
That backline looks pretty solid right now except for one gaping hole where Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty (circled in purple) is. A hole that would allow a pacey winger like him to cause all sorts of problems if left unattended. Right now, the ball can’t get to him because he’s covered by Luiz Araujo (dotted red arrow), but someone definitely should keep an eye on him. Just sayin’.
Rosted sees Insigne approaching (yellow arrow) and passes to him (blue arrow). Brooks Lennon is still pursuing Insigne (red arrow), but no one’s keeping track of Jonathan Osorio who has broken away from the cluster of players in Atlanta’s defensive third to open an option for Insigne (purple arrow). Osorio is about to receive here and just look at all of the space he’s going to have because no one’s pressing him (big purple circle). I’m thinking Osorio is Araujo’s man in this scenario (dotted red arrow), which would leave Robinson to deal with Marshall-Rutty’s potentially dangerous run (yellow circle and arrow).
Insigne passes to the wide-open Osorio (blue arrow) who now has Chol coming up behind to pressure him (red arrow). It’s around this time that Marshall-Rutty starts a mad dash toward the edge of Atlanta’s box (yellow arrow).
Osorio sees his Canadian compatriot’s run (yellow arrow) and rewards it with a perfect through ball into the space ahead of him (blue arrow). Alarm bells are ringing and Atlanta’s defenders need to get back FAST, but they need to be mindful of the two Toronto forwards who are running into the box with them: Ayo Akinola and Servania (circled in purple).
There are two center backs here, so logic would dictate that one would cover Akinola (probably Purata considering how close he is to him) and the other Servania (presumably Abram because he’s literally right next to him (yellow arrow)...
... but that doesn’t happen at all. Just like in the first goal, both center backs stay with one threat (solid red arrows) and leave another all alone. From here, Marshall-Rutty sends a low cross to Servania (blue arrow)...
... Sosa tries to dive and tip the ball away (a risky tackle from behind by the way which could’ve conceded a penalty if done incorrectly), but isn’t successful...
... Servania gets his shot away and the ball hits the back of the net. It’s a tied game with just 39 seconds left on the clock.
- Stay back and see out the game. There’s less than a minute left, Atlanta is up a goal and has shifted to a back five (a more defensive posture). Do you know what Atlanta should be doing in this scenario? Sitting in a deep low block, marking every single red-and-black shirt and letting Toronto come to them. Do you know what Atlanta should not be doing? Breaking forward to press high and give Toronto more room to work with. And yet here we see SIX of Atlanta United’s players moving forward. If this were the 60th, 70th or even 80th minute, I’d understand this. But there are literally 47 seconds left in the game. All they need to do is make sure the ball doesn’t end up in the back of their net by the end of this play and they’re taking all three points.
- Defensive miscues (particularly inside the box) end up being quite costly. For me, both Abram and Purata share some of the blame for Servania being so alone inside the box. First of all, Abram should’ve been tracking Servania the entire time they entered the box. It’s actually quite early on in the play that Abram abandons Servania and just lets him have the space to take his shot. Then it’s the lack of awareness from Purata that Abram was covering Akinola and not Servania. He needs to see that and adjust to close down Servania much sooner. If either of them is closer to Servania and doesn’t afford him such a large cushion of space inside the box, that play likely doesn’t end in a goal.
Atlanta United Goal - Machop Chol 75’
The play for Chop’s goal starts with a Lennon corner kick from the other side that ended up on the right flank. Araujo is trying to find a way through to send a cross into the box where tall players like Robinson and Purata are waiting to head it home. Araujo is under tons of pressure from Marshall-Rutty and Mark-Anthony Kaye (red arrows), preventing him from going forward. Because of this, he’s forced to go back to Sosa (blue arrow) to bail him out, but the Argentine needs to act fast because Akinola is approaching from behind (dotted purple arrow).
Take note of where Chol (circled in yellow) is. He’s almost on the right touchline right now to provide support to Araujo and Sosa, but he won’t be staying there for long.
With Akinola breathing down his neck (underlined in red), Sosa first times a pass to Chol (blue arrow). It’s around this time that Araujo tries to turn around and sneakily get behind Marshall-Rutty and Kaye (yellow arrow) to find himself in a prime spot for a cross.
Chol, seeing limited options moving forward, decides to pass back to Andrew Gutman (blue arrow). As soon as the ball leaves Chol’s feet, he starts making a beeline for the center of the box to receive the cross (purple arrow). This is a fundamental part of soccer that’s taught even at the most amateur levels: the pass and go.
Now with Gutman on the ball and a sizable amount of space in midfield, Toronto’s defensive line starts to move away from the right flan (red arrows). This is exactly what Araujo was waiting for. As soon as he sees Gutman receive the ball, he begins a run into space on the far side (yellow arrow).
Gutman advances a bit and is getting ready to deliver the ball to his Brazilian teammate (blue arrow).
Gutman delivers a nice ball over the top to Araujo (blue arrow) who now has tons of space to play a deadly cross. Chol enters the 18-yard box and now continues toward the six-yard box (purple arrow) just in time for Araujo’s cross.
Marshall-Rutty tries to close down Araujo (red arrow), but he’s too late. The Brazilian has already picked out his target and sent the ball in (blue arrow)...
... which Chol meets beautifully with his head...
... and flicks it just out of Sean Johnson’s reach to put Atlanta ahead 2-1.
- Machop has evolved to Machamp. Chol’s come a long way since he first joined Atlanta United in 2021. At 24 years old, he’s not only proving to be a very versatile player but also a very effective one. Here, Gonzalo Pineda deployed him as a second striker and he’s showing that he has the characteristics to be a good player in MLS. I’m sure we’ll see more of that develop throughout the season. Also, respect for this:
I wonder how long he’s been waiting for this and I’m glad he finally got his chance on Saturday. May it be the first goal of many more to come.
- Luiz Araujo now has two goals and two assists in eight games. Is that a good return for a player? Yeah, I’d say so. But the question becomes is that enough for a designated player? You know, one of the three guys on your roster that you can pay anything say, oh I don’t know, $4.5 million a year? When you pay an estimated $12 million transfer fee for a player, you probably expect a larger return than just four goal contributions in twice as many appearances. For reference, Giorgos Giakoumakis, who has scored four goals in six appearances (four starts), only cost the club about $5.3 million. There’s no doubt Araujo is a talented player, but he certainly has yet to fulfill the expectations of such an expensive player. That being said, full credit to him for putting in an excellent cross in this play rather than attempting to dribble through traffic.